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Listening to Archived Sounds Amid the Stacks at the New York Public Library

'Archives of Sound' at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
‘Archives of Sound’ at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Up on the second floor of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, you might hear the rising notes of opera faintly ringing from a card catalogue or see people wearing headphones at the ends of the sheet music aisles. The audio interventions in the library at Lincoln Center are part of Archives of Soundan installation by international art collective Kinokophone to engage visitors in unexpected ways with the institution’s sound archives.

'Archives of Sound' at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
‘Archives of Sound’ at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

NYPL’s Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound holds around 700,000 recordings on everything from wax cylinders to vinyl records, and they’re all available on-site for the public to explore. However, the average library goer might be intimidated by such a vast resource, with choices not just including all genres of music, but speeches, radio plays, field recordings, and spoken word performances. Archives of Sound is an alternative portal into these collections, seamlessly embedded in the library environment.

Listening to the stacks in 'Archives of Sound' (courtesy NYPL)
Listening to the stacks in ‘Archives of Sound’ (courtesy NYPL) (click to enlarge)

Unless you read the label text or go looking for it, that integration can make Archives of Sound easy to overlook, although the secret feel of it is part of its enjoyment, and keeps it from becoming too disruptive to fellow library patrons. Kinokophone often explores archival sounds with its Kinokophonography programs and has experimented with installations, such as the “Kinokologue” commissioned by the former Cornerhouse in Manchester. The work was a “cabinet of sonic curiosities,” a wunderkammer holding rare noise instead of unusual objects. Similarly, Archives of Sound is augmenting the existing structure of the library. A card catalogue (presided over by a model of Nipper the dog, made famous by his gramophone-listening pose) has drawers that trigger small speakers upon opening, playing audio of a Buddhist sermon (labeled “Victor 13557” as in the library catalogue), opera, electronic music, and aleatory tunes based on chance.

Lantern slides can be inserted into a box at a table alongside the card catalogue. Each triggers a different track, one on catalogue terminology, another on how sound technology guides our experiences with the past, and another on noises from behind-the-scenes of the archives. Headphones at the end of sheet music stacks play recordings of music in those aisles, which you can mix together by flipping switches. All of these are purely auditory experiences. You’re not given an explanation of what you’re hearing, when the scratchy classical melodies were recorded, or what jazz musician was immortalized into this audio. Archives of Sound in its interactive design is about sparking curiosity in exploring the archives, while offering tantalizing notes from the wealth of noise available to anyone who wants to access this public resource of sound.

'Archives of Sound' at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
‘Archives of Sound’ at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Using the slide box in 'Archives of Sound' (courtesy NYPL)
Using the slide box in ‘Archives of Sound’ (courtesy NYPL)
'Archives of Sound' at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
‘Archives of Sound’ at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
'Archives of Sound' at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
‘Archives of Sound’ at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
'Archives of Sound' at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
‘Archives of Sound’ at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
'Archives of Sound' at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
‘Archives of Sound’ at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
'Archives of Sound' at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
‘Archives of Sound’ at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Archives of Sound is ongoing at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (40 Lincoln Center Plaza, Upper West Side, Manhattan).

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